Gov. Deal wrote letter promoting ethics chief for elite group

Less than a year after Georgia’s ethics director said she felt pressured to settle ethics complaints against Gov. Nathan Deal, the governor wrote a letter recommending her inclusion in the Leadership Georgia program.

The governor wrote the letter despite the fact that he’s said he doesn’t really know the ethics commission’s executive director, Holly LaBerge.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a copy of the recommendation a week after it reported that text and email messages between LaBerge and Deal’s chief of staff, Chris Riley, showed the two engaged in lighthearted banter around the time LaBerge claimed to have been pressured to settle Deal’s cases in July 2012.

In a later text from May 2013, LaBerge followed up on a request to Riley to get a letter of recommendation to back up her application to Leadership Georgia, an affiliate of the Georgia Chamber of Commerce that trains a select group of future leaders.

Weeks later, in July, Riley texted LaBerge with positive news: “I just got a text from the review panel for LG (Leadership Georgia). You are in play. This is a good thing.”

In a letter Deal wrote June 11, 2013, the governor says, “It is my pleasure to recommend Holly LaBerge to the Leadership Georgia class of 2014.

“While working in various positions throughout state government, Holly has shown leadership in improving government transparency throughout Georgia.

“I believe Holly LaBerge would be an excellent candidate for Leadership Georgia. Her unique and diverse perspective on the many challenges that face our state should fit in well in Leadership Georgia’s mission. I would appreciate your consideration of her application.

LaBerge wasn’t accepted into the program, despite Deal’s help. The group gets about 600 applications a year and accepts 63.

Deal’s spokesman, Brian Robinson, said the governor has written about 20 similar recommendation since taking office.

“The fact that the governor was asked for a recommendation shows a respectful and professional relationship was maintained with her before, during and after the cases involving Deal for Governor were completed.”

Deal has said he didn’t know LaBerge, and Robinson said that they only met briefly at a ceremony where someone she knows was sworn onto a board or into a state post.

“There are certainly times when the office sends out things under his name,” he said. “It’s a form letter. He doesn’t know her, she doesn’t know him.”

Robinson said the request for a recommendation came in from “people the governor respects and knows,” including a top elected official. He declined to name the official.

William Perry of Common Cause Georgia was skeptical.

“How many people write letters of recommendation for people they can’t pick out of a crowd when they walk in the room?” Perry asked. “It certainly makes their relationship seem not as distant as he said it was. It seems contradictory to the governor’s prior comments about how the agency functioned.”

In a controversial memo released two weeks ago, LaBerge claims that on July 16 and July 17, 2012, she was threatened by Deal counsel Ryan Teague and Riley, to settle a series of complaints against Deal’s 2010 campaign for governor.

The release of the memo brought new criticism down on Deal, along with pressure from Democrats who hope that ethics questions give them a shot at unseating the GOP incumbent.

The back-and-forth between LaBerge, Riley and Teague came less than a week before the ethics commission voted to dismiss major charges against Deal, who agreed to pay $3,350 in fees for technical violations in his campaign disclosure.

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